I am often asked how can I stand up and speak in front of a room full of people. (Photo by Emma Wilsher). Before I was ill I was a very confident speaker and I could never understand why everyone couldn’t do it! However, when I was so poorly with puerperal psychosis, a severe form of postnatal depression, for a while I could not even answer my own telephone. Speaking to one person was an ordeal and attending a case conference was a nightmare! Yet this experience taught me that not everyone feels comfortable addressing a group of people whether it be 6 or 600.
The first time I spoke publicly about my illness was in a church at a service to mark World Mental Health Day. Spontaneously I felt I wanted to tell the congregation that mental illness can and does affect anyone; you don’t have to be ‘a type’, but given treatment, support and time that you can make a full recovery, as I had done. The following week I was asked to address a few people at the local hospital with five minutes on what had been good about my treatment and five minutes on what could have been better. Six months later I spoke to 600 nurses at a conference in London. Quite a journey from not being able to speak to one person! Now I speak all over the world.
My membership of the Professional Speaking Association created amazing friendships and opportunities (such as attending the NSA convention in New York) but I also learnt a great deal from attending events and meetings. See my blog for some of these stories. Pictured are fellow speakers and friends Richard McCann and Paul McGee.
So what can I share with you? I am aiming this at patients who wish to share their stories with professionals as I have done, but many of the points are relevant to any public speaking.
Audiences know when you are ‘pulling the wool’. Do not try to be someone or something you are not.
From an early age we enjoy listening to stories and that generally stays with us.
If your presentation is YOUR story only you know all the details so no one can really challenge you it. Let this give you confidence – if you miss bits out only you will know.
Wear appropriate clothing and make sure that nothing has to be tugged or pulled constantly, e.g. thin strap falling off your shoulder. It does help to be taken seriously if you do present yourself well.
Even if you feel nervous, fake a smile and your body will be tricked into feeling more confident. Also if you smile the chances are someone will smile back at you, again making you feel better.
My first few talks I wrote out word for word and read them out, with the paper shaking! This is one approach and can be very effective. One lady I heard did this when telling a room of health professionals about the suicide of her daughter. Do you think she was judged for her presentational skills? Not at all, and it is one of the most memorable talks I have had the honour to hear.
What three main messages do you want your audience to take away with them? For example, the importance of ward hygiene, the need for staff to be sensitive and the requirement for patient safety. Make these your concluding comments. That is your ending!
Then think about how you will start. Who are you? Why are you here? What do you wish to share with them and why? E.g. I am the daughter of HJ, who sadly died following problems after an operation. I am not here to moan at you but rather to share with you what happened and how we all can learn from this tragedy.
Next do the middle bits. Make a note of the main bits of your story. What do you really want them to know? What will you be cross that you didn’t say in retrospect? Make sure you write it down.
Check that you know how long you are required speak and plan accordingly. You can still use your main points that you have chosen above. The skill then is to know how long to talk about each one. I now can make mine anywhere between a few minutes on a radio interview to a three hour session for students!
I make a note on my papers to give me a guide of the time. At the end of each page I can glance to check if how I am doing and speed up or slow down as appropriate. That way you avoid getting to the end in a flap and missing key bits out.
Before speaking checks
Is vital! Just before I am about to speak I picture a lit candle. I take a deep breath in and then exhale just enough to make the flame flicker – not stay still or go out, but gently flicker. Do this a few times and you will steady your breathing and nerves.
There is no need to put yourself down and apologising about being new to this, being late, nervous, etc. The crucial point is what you have to say – they do not need to know that you were almost late because you took your dog to the vets! Just get on with it.
Try to finish in time for a few questions. Have one ready yourself in case no-one asks one. E.g. Something I am often asked is …. Be aware of time and make your replies short and to the point.
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